Today (April 26) in London History – the ticking bomb in the royal park

The bomb in St James’s Park is the subject of today’s Today in London History podcast.


It started ticking five years after it was dropped on London. And buried deep in St. James’s Park. 

Dormant for five years. I have to confess, the thought did cross my mind, are there others that were dropped now 80 years ago, buried, out of sight? But could still go live, could still start ticking. And, yes, explode.

Anyway, we know the location – it was St James Park. In fact, we know the exact location – it was under a footpath. How’s that for a chilling thought. 

We know the exact location because the London press was all over the story. 

The papers spelt it out where the bomb was. Indeed, they shot and published a slew of photographs. 

I say “the bomb” singular but in fact the April 26th, 1946 bomb was the third of three that they discovered in St James’ Park in those weeks. 

Just about everything about the story is remarkable, is food for thought. For starters, it was at the bottom of a 30-foot shaft. And, yes, it was a huge piece of ordnance. A thousand pounder. It’s going to take me some time I fear to get my head round the scale of an impact that could 1) drive a bomb – and yes a huge bomb – thirty into the ground. And 2) in those same few seconds cover it, bury it, with the earth the impact dislodged. And 3) somehow – despite that tremendous impact – keep in working order the clock, the timing mechanism. Indeed, it’s a remarkable thought that five years underground – all that moisture and damp and dirt didn’t rust the thing out, render it past its sell-by-date. But there you have it. It didn’t. The proof is in the press coverage, including the photographs of the Big Bang when the royal engineers detonated it by controlled demolition. It’s a remarkable image. You can see the bridge over the water. Buckingham Palace in the distance. And a huge cloud of smoke and debris, high up in the air, far above the tops of those big old trees in the park. One of the routes I take on my Old Westminster Walk goes along that footpath and over that bridge and I shall now be adding that image to the small portfolio of remarkable photographs, engravings, maps and census returns that play a cameo show-and-tell role on that walk.

Anyway, there’s no gainsaying the drama of the story of the bomb that ticked in St James Park.

In the first instance, a five-man unit of a bomb disposal squad – how brave are those people – were trying to remove the bomb from the bottom of the 30-foot shaft when it began to tick. 

The bomb disposal men didn’t hang around. They said their farewells and made a hasty exit. Eminently professional though, they left a calling card. A microphone attached to the top of the bomb.

Major Smith, who was in charge of the operation, said, “once a bomb starts ticking there is only one safe course – to let it blow up. And if it does not, explode it as soon as possible.”

Anyway, the squad was withdrawn. The park was cordoned off. 

The necessary precautions were as regards the nearby buildings. Buckingham Palace was some 300 yards from the ticking bomb. Police opened windows on the front of the palace. Similarly people living in Birdcage Walk and the Mall were advised to keep their windows open.  Occupants of government buildings in Whitehall were also informed. There were 600 lbs of TNT in the bomb. The other 400 pounds were its packaging. When it was exploded there was dull rumble. The ground for several hundred yards around the crater trembled. The ground waves could be felt by crowds in Horse Guards Parade, the nearest point to which the public was permitted to approach. 

The explosion left a crater about 40 feet across and 25 feet deep.

Three other factoids.

  1. the BBC broadcast the controlled demolition. Be interesting to know if it was recorded and they still have the recording. 2. Princess Elizabeth was in Buckingham Palace at the time. And 3. Queen Mary was in residence at Marlborough House. Curiosity got the better of Queen Mary – 15 minutes after the controlled demolition Her Majesty came out and inspected the crater. 

And we have now inspected the big event in London on this day in 1946. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And don’t just take it from us.

Take it from that American convention of walking tour guides a few years ago. As they put it:

 “London Walks is the premier walking tour company in the entire world.” The secret? It’s pretty obvious, really. The muzzle-loading velocity of the guiding. In the words of that American filmmaker, “if this were a golf tournament every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

At no little risk of belabouring the obvious, with London Walks, uniquely, you get walking tours fronted by accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, historians, the former Editor of Independent Television News, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London archaeologists, the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, distinguished academics – a Cambridge University palaeontologist, a University College London geologist, elite, award-winning professionally qualified Blue Badge guides, etc. 

Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

In this case, something new that I make familiar is the Queen’s eye view of the famous Buckingham Palace balcony. The scene from outside, looking up at the balcony, has been viewed by billions of pairs of eyes. Everybody’s seen it. What almost no one has seen is the room the Queen walks through and from which she steps out onto the balcony. A good analogy: the scene in the tunnel before Liverpool or the New Orleans Saints emerge out onto the playing field. Anyway, I’ve managed to get my hands on a rare photograph of the Buckingham Palace room that is the antechamber to the balcony. So on that Old Westminster walk – when we get to the bridge in St James’s Park, we look west and there’s Buckingham Palace, there’s the balcony. And at that point – it’s a magical moment for me, I feel like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat – out comes the photograph. I say, “ok, there’s the balcony, this is the vantage point of the millions, now take a look at this, this is the vantage point of the Queen just before she steps out onto the balcony. For some of the people on that walk that photograph – I see their eyes feasting on it – might well be the most memorable moment of the tour. Anyway, that walk – my Old Westminster Walk – which I guide every other Thursday – is my Today in London recommendation. 

And on that note, see ya tomorrow. 

Good Londoning, one and all. And so glad you’re back. You were sorely missed.

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